My first year at Northwestern convinced me I couldn’t read. It wasn’t the amount of reading — although that in itself was alarming — but the style in which social science articles are written. I study journalism and history, with a healthy dose of gender studies thrown in. By now I’ve learned to understand most of my assignments, but it was a rough start and it took me almost four years to get to that point. Anyone with experience reading queer theory or critical race theory knows it’s a struggle at the beginning. I would read for hours and feel like I’d learned nothing.
I’ve always been a strong reader, so this was a surprising — and honestly scary — experience. However, over the following years, I’ve realized the problem didn’t only lie with me. Yes, I did need to learn how to read critically and how to unpack dense theoretical writing. But the problem was also the writing itself. My professors would explain concepts I had struggled through on my own, and when I could suddenly understand them in class, I felt myself getting irritated with the authors. Why write theory in a way that makes it inaccessible to people who could truly benefit from it? Personally, I’ve carried a years-long grudge against Michel Foucault (and I cannot be the only one) for writing interesting theory in a needlessly complicated style that could be stated in simpler words.
Activism and academic progress can go hand in hand. Radical theories in gender studies, ethnic studies and disability studies can be revolutionary in their own right and do some of the work of dismantling systems of power. But they lose that potential if the people most affected by discrimination and marginalization can’t puzzle through wildly inaccessible texts. I’m not implying that marginalized people are not smart or capable of understanding complicated theory. Rather, I’m stating that academia should not be about using $5 words when 5-cent words will suffice. Using needlessly complicated academic lingo is not a sign of sophisticated style. It’s just bad writing.
Maintaining the dry, traditional style of academic writing does a disservice to fields of study meant to challenge mainstream thought and bring about actual social change. Writing about health and education and class is a necessary task, and revolutionary theory is developed surrounding these topics. But as long as average patients, teachers, students and working-class families don’t have access to it, it remains only theory, and can’t be acted upon. If the revolution requires an advanced degree from an elite university, it is not revolutionary. This work cannot be put into practice in real communities unless those communities can readily access it, understand it and put it into action.
This is not to say theorists should lose nuance or depth in their writings. Nor am I arguing against specific theories or schools of thought. I am simply saying that communicating those ideas and their nuances in clear terms is not an impossible task. Effecting change should not be about reaching a word count or competing for who can make the longest sentence. Insisting on overly-complicated writing only serves to maintain the exclusivity of the academy. This exclusivity in turn reproduces a culture in which an educated elite can recognize their own privilege and the social wrongs all around them while doing little to actually rectify them.
Maybe it’s just me, and I really can’t read. But if I, as someone who has time and support to work through these dense materials, can barely get through an article without exhausting a dictionary, how could that writing possibly be fully accessible to someone working 40+ hours a week, caring for children, battling violence or experiencing homelessness? Creating an academic environment that is accessible to a broader spectrum of people should be a priority for anyone seeking to create change on any level.
An uneducated and disenfranchised people is a people unable to organize and agitate against hate, violence and injustice. Of course, going to a college or university is far from the only way to discuss and learn about radical theories — in fact, a lot of this knowledge comes from experience. However, the readings many of us use should be easily understood by almost everyone looking to learn from them.
Katie Pach is a Medill senior. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to email@example.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.
February 14, 2019